The parish church of St Mary & St Nicholas is one of John Henry Newman’s most significant legacies in Littlemore and a building of national importance. Commissioned by Newman, and built to his personal design in 1836, its original layout has served as a model for small elegant places of worship throughout the world. His struggle to get it built, in an extremely deprived area of Oxford, reveals much about Newman’s compassion and sense of Christian purpose.
On becoming vicar of the highly prestigious St. Mary’s University Church in Oxford in 1828, Newman discovered that its benefice included Littlemore, a tiny rural hamlet on the outskirts of the city lacking a church or school. Maybe because of his growing fame and celebrity status in the University, Newman became increasingly drawn to the simplicity of its people, mainly poor agricultural workers and tenant farmers. As well as personally funding and overseeing school lessons for local children, he launched a campaign for a church, putting pressure on the University authorities, who proved extremely reluctant to help. In 1835 he organised a public petition for a church, which all the resident inhabitants signed, many with their ‘mark’ (see extract below).
Later that year he was begrudgingly granted some college land and permission to go ahead, as long as he raised the bulk of the building costs himself. He achieved this remarkably quickly, using his many connections as a leading figure in the Oxford movement. His mother, a major benefactor, laid the foundation stone that July. She and all the other church donors are commemorated on a large plaque just inside the church (see below).
Newman’s church was completed and consecrated in 1836. It contains many striking features, including a stone altar (then hugely controversial), remarkably tall lancet windows, and a ‘catholic’ style memorial to Newman’s deceased mother, carved by the noted sculptor Richard Westmacott (1799-1872). Widely praised for its simple design, and likened to a ‘temple’ by the Ecclesiologist, it was considered a huge success and attracted considerable attention. However, it soon proved too small for Littlemore’s expanding population.
In 1848 a chancel and tower were added to the church’s east end, designed by the architect Joseph Clarke (1819-88). By this time Newman had left Littlemore, having famously converted to Catholicism in 1845. The extension was funded by his old friend Charles Crawley (1788-1871), who had built Lawn Upton House in Littlemore after making a fortune in the guarno trade. Crawley was helped by his former boss William Gibbs (1790-1875), one of the richest men in England, who later financed the construction of Keble College Chapel, Oxford at vast expense.
Further alterations to Newman’s church included stained glass windows in the nave by William Morris and Co. and a new altar window by the Littlemore resident Louis Davis (1860-1941), whom Pevsner considered the ‘last of the pre-Raphaelites’. A rood screen in honour of Newman was erected in 1913, designed by the leading historian of religious architecture Frank Herbert Crossley (1868-1955).
Restoration and Renewal:
Newman’s church is now in urgent need of your help. Over the years many essential structural repairs have been carried out, both by experts and local volunteers. However, the building still lacks basic amenities, including toilets, simple kitchen facilities and central heating. It has become increasingly difficult to use – as a place of worship, as a suitable venue for young children attending the Sunday school, or as a hub for community activities in what remains one of the most economically deprived areas of Oxford.
The Newman Meeting Place Project aims to restore and renew Newman’s historic church. It will provide essential amenities and new internal spaces for meeting and celebrating Newman’s remarkable legacy. Visitors and pilgrims will benefit from a new heritage area. Flexible seating will enable the building to be used in multiple ways, for lectures, concerts, exhibitions and a range of Christian group activities.
Renewing Newman’s church in this way continues his compassionate vision of helping and serving this local community. As was the case in 1836, when the donors to Newman’s church were commemorated with a plaque, this project of restoration and renewal will also remember all those who contribute with a similar permanent memorial.